1899 – 1968
On 19th February 1899 Lucio Fontana was born in Rosario in Santa Fe province, in Argentina, his parents being of Italian origin. His father Luigi, a sculptor, had been living in Argentina for a decade or so, and his mother, Lucia Bottino, was a theatre actress. From a school age, Lucio was sent to live in Italy for his education, and was entrusted to his uncle who lived in Castiglione Olona, in the province of Varese in northern Italy.
From 1906 to 1911 he attended the Torquato Tasso school at Biumo Inferiore (near Varese) and, after completing his elementary education, he went on to study at the Collegio Arcivescovile Ballerini, in Seregno. He then began his artistic apprenticeship, starting practising in his father’s sculpture studio (his father having returned to Italy by this time) and at the same time studying at the master-builders school at the “Carlo Cattaneo” Institute in Milan.
In 1916, when Italy became embroiled in the First World War, Fontana interrupted his studies and enrolled as a voluntary soldier, reaching the rank of second lieutenant in the infantry regiment.
In 1918 he returned to Milan, having been injured on the Karst Plateau and discharged with a silver campaign medal. He went back to his studies, and was awarded a diploma as a building surveyor.In 1921 Lucio Fontana returned to his birthplace, Rosario in Santa Fe province, Argentina, and decided to follow in the family’s artistic tradition, dedicating himself entirely to sculpture. He started work in his father’s workshop “Fontana y Scarabelli”, which specialised in producing graveyard sculptures. After his success in a competition for a commemorative plaque to Louis Pasteur for the Faculty of Medicine at the Universidad Nacional del Litoral, he changed direction in 1924, devoting himself no longer to commercial artistic sculptures, but to researching new forms of sculpture. He set up on his own, opening his sculpture workshop in Rosario. Between 1925 and 1927 he won various public competitions, and received his first important commissions, such as the Monument to Juana Blanco in Calle San Salvador in Rosario. Towards the middle of 1927 he returned to Italy, coming back to Milan, where he enrolled in the first year of the sculpture course at the Brera Academy of Fine Arts (1927-1928). Here he began following the courses of Adolfo Wildt and the marble sculpture school: at the end of the year, he was promoted to the 4th year of the course, and at the end of 1929, he gained his diploma presenting his sculpture El auriga (The Charioteer, 1928) as his final piece of work.In this period, the influence of Wildt was still strong, and can be noticed among the various graveyard sculptures he produced for the Monumental Cemetery in Milan (the Mapelli Chapel, 1928; the Berardi tomb, the Pasta tomb plaque and Locati tomb plaque, 1929). For Fontana, 1930 was a year full of significant events: he took part in the 27th Venice Biennial (where Wildt was commissioner), presenting his sculptures Eva (1928) and Vittoria fascista (Fascist Victory, 1929), and he held his first one-man exhibition at the Milione gallery, in Milan, prompted and organized by Edoardo Persico. It was here that the artist showed his Uomo nero (Black Man, 1930), an extremely breakaway work that Wildt did not approve of.
With Uomo nero (Black Man), Fontana began his work on the theme of human figures, deprived of their plasticity and shape, and reduced to geometrized profiles. He continued with this theme, fully developing it into a vast series of drawings and “tavolette graffite” (scratched panels), between 1931 and 1932, starting a productive period based on experimentation of a figurative and technical nature. In 1934 Fontana produced a series of abstract sculptures, or geometrized shapes in plaster supported by thin wire rods, displayed the following year at a controversial one-man show at the Milione gallery.
Considered to be a fundamental point in his creative development, these sculptures were close to the style of the Lombard abstract movement, the members of which were also linked to the Milione gallery, as well as the Paris-based group “Abstraction-Création”. Continuing his research, between 1935 and 1939 he devoted his time and energy to making ceramic sculptures, working intensely at Albissola, on the Ligurian coast, in the workspace of his friend Giuseppe Mazzotti. In 1940 his formal experimentation continued with the creation of various sculptures in the round in coloured mosaics and with the inauguration of his first work of an environmental nature: the frieze Volo di Vittorie (Flight of Victories) on the ceiling of the Memorial to Fascist Martyrs in Piazza San Sepolcro, in Milan. However, in spring he set off by ship from Genoa to Argentina, also urged by his father to put all his energy into the new competition for the Monumento Nacional a la Bandera, to be erected at Rosario in Santa Fe province.Truly settled in Argentina, Fontana set to working as a sculptor, very avidly as always, and his work was met with great interest. His pieces were displayed at numerous exhibitions, and he received various awards. He was also appointed Professor of “Sculpting” at the Esquela de Artes Plasticas in Rosario, and at the same time he also taught “decoration” at the “Prilidiano Pueyrredòn” Academy of Fine Arts in Buenos Aires. In 1946, with Jorge Rornero Brest and Jorge Larco, he organized courses at the “Altamira, Escuela libre de artes plàsticas” in Buenos Aires, which became an important centre for cultural activities. From his contact with younger artists and intellectuals, and from the new ideas in research that he encountered, the Manifiesto Blanco was published in November in pamphlet form, compiled by Bernardo Arias, Horacio Cazenueve, and Marcos Fridman, and also signed by Pablo Arias, Rodolfo Burgos, Enrique Benito, César Bernal, Luis Coli, Alfredo Hansen and Jorge (Amelio) Rocamonte (Fontana did not sign the manifesto, probably because of his position, which was also officially recognized).
In the same year, the term “Concetto Spaziale” (Spatial Concept) appeared for the first time in the titles of a group of drawings by the artist, a term that was to accompany a large part of his output after this date. On 22nd March 1947 he again set off for Italy, on board the Vapore Argentina ship from Buenos Aires. Settling once more in Milano, he returned to Albissola to begin working again in ceramics, attracting a good amount of critical interest. In Milan, however, he came into contact with a group of young artists, and after meetings and debates, the first Manifesto dello Spazialismo (Manifesto of Spatialism) came into being in December, signed not only by Fontana, but also by the critic Giorgio Kaisserlian, the philosopher Beniamino Joppolo and the writer Milena Milani.
In 1948, the second drafting of the Manifesto (quickly followed by a third version: Proposta per un regolamento (Proposal for Regulations), 1950 reiterated the need to go beyond the art of the past, allowing “the picture to come out of its frame, the sculpture out of its glass case”, and to produce new forms of art using the innovative means made available by technological progress.
Spurred on by the modernist momentum, in 1949 Fontana created an emblematic work at the Naviglio gallery in Milan: the Ambiente spaziale a luce nera (Spatial Environment in Black Light), in which a series of swaying phosphorescent elements hang from the ceiling in a completely black exhibition space. In the same year, he developed his research into spatial ideas with the start of his cycle of “Buchi” (Holes), pictorial works where the use of colours is joined by “whirls” of holes made with an awl.
His work as a ceramic sculpture continued, being celebrated in the exhibition Twentieth-Century Italian Art, at the MoMA in New York (1949), as well as in his one-man exhibition in May 1950 held at the 25th Venice Biennial. The year came to a close with his entry in the competition for the fifth set of doors to Milan Cathedral, organized by the Cathedral construction department.
Judging for the designs for the Milan Cathedral doors took place on 25th April 1951. Together with Luciano Minguzzi, Francesco Messina and Enrico Manfrini, Fontana was entered into the final part of the competition (he was joint winner in 1952 with Minguzzi) and his creations were displayed in the central hall of the 9th Triennial in Milano. He also created a vast neon arabesque for the Triennial above the grand staircase, and a ceiling of indirect light in the vestibule and the hall, both part of an environmental structure designed by the architects Luciano Baldessarri and Marcello Grisotti.
In addition, on the 26th November he signed the fourth Manifesto of Spatial Art with Anton Giulio Ambrosini, Giancarlo Carozzi, Roberto Crippa, Mario De Luigi, Gianni Dova, Virgilio Guidi, Beniamino Joppolo, Milena Milani, Berto Morucchio, Cesare Peverelli and Vinicio Vianello. He continued to work assiduously on his cycle of “Holes”, lending these works for the first time to the 1952 Spatial Art exhibition at the Naviglio gallery in Milan. In the same year in Milan, he married Teresita Rasini, who he had met in 1930, and he transferred his Milan studio from Via Prina no. 23 to Corso Monforte, his final address.
On the 17th May he signed the Manifesto del movimento spaziale per la televisione (Manifesto of the Spatial Movement for Television) with Anton Giulio Ambrosini, Alberto Burri, Roberto Crippa, Mario De Luigi, Bruno De Toffoli, Gianni Dova, Enrico Donati, Giancarlo Carozzi, Virgilio Guidi, Beniamino Joppolo, Guido La Regina, Milena Milani, Berto Morucchio, Cesare Peverelli, Tancredi and Vinicio Vianello, and with some of his works he took part in experimental broadcasts from the RAI television studios in Milan. In the fifties, Fontana took part in numerous important international exhibitions, and he continued unremittingly with his research in the field of painting. In addition to his “Holes” motif, his canvases began to be enriched with dense elements of colour, and with fragments of glass, giving rise to his cycle of works known as “Pietre” (“Stones”), hailed by the critics in 1955 when they were displayed at the 7th Rome Quadrennial. From 1954 he began developing his style further, accompanying his cycle of “Stones” with new creations, identified as his series of “Gessi” (“Impastos”, 1954-1958) and his series of “Barocchi” (“Baroques”, 1954-1957). At the 29th Venice Biennial (1958), he was given an entire room to display his most recent works. Alongside his “Impastos” and his “Baroques”, he also showed some of his “Inchiostri” (“Inks”) and his spatial sculptures on rods, that the artist had begun working on from 1957. At the peak of his research in this decade, the “Tagli” (“Slashes”) series took shape, conceived at the end of 1958 and presented at his one-man show at the Naviglio gallery in February 1959 and shortly after at the Stadler gallery in Paris (March 1959), then at Documenta in Kassel (July 1959), at the 5th San Paolo Biennial in Brazil (September 1959), at the critical retrospective exhibition organized by Crispolti at the L’Attico gallery in Rome (October 1959), at the Schmela gallery in Dusseldorf (1960), and lastly at his one-man show at McRoberts & Tunnard in London (1960).
During this very invigorating period for the artist, two other short series also emerged. His series of “Quanta” (1958-1960) is a group of polygonal canvases with slashes, arranged in different patterns, while his “Nature” (“Nature Sculptures” 1959 and 1960) series includes clay and bronze works conceived at Albissola.
From the start of the sixties, Fontana was particularly committed to his series of “Olii” (“Oils”) on canvas, where the thick painted layer is perforated with holes or gashes. This series includes the works devoted to an evocation of the city of Venice, displayed at his first one-man show in the USA at the Martha Jackson Gallery in New York (1961). The same year, inspired by the city of New York, he devised a new kind of work, which became his series of “Metalli” (“Metal Sheets”), shiny metal plates that the artist cut into with gashes. His unstoppable inventive spirit was paralleled by the number of exhibitions devoted to his work, in Milan, Venice, Tokyo, London, Bruxelles. In his quest for iconographic renewal, he developed his important cycle that goes by the name of “La Fine di Dio” (“The End of God”, 1963-1964), a series of monochrome oval canvases, at times covered in sequins and cut through with holes or gashes, first shown at the Ariete gallery in Milan and later at the Iris Clert gallery in Paris.
Lucio Fontana next put his creativity to the test with his series of “Teatrini” (“Little Theatres”, 1964-1966), works where the lacquered wooden frames are shaped to make up different outlines. The year 1966 was a year of important international acclaim. One-man exhibitions were organized at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, at the Marlborough Gallery in New York and at the Alexander Iolas gallery in Paris. In Italy, the hall that was devoted to his work at the 33rd Venice Biennial was of particular prominence; in this space he worked alongside the architect Carlo Scarpa to create an oval maze-like environment illuminated by a white light and covered by white canvases each with a single slash. This work was greeted with great acclaim and won the Biennial prize. The year 1967 marked the culmination of his strict use of single colours, and his tendency to cut canvases with more and more regular clean slashes in his series of “Ellissi” (“Ellipses”), elliptical lacquered wooden panels in various colours and perforated by machine-cut holes, in line with new technical developments. At the start of 1968, Lucio Fontana left his studio in Corso Monforte, in Milan, and moved to Comabbio (near Varese). He died in Varese on the 7th September of the same year.